Karl Rove's "Out to Lunch" defense.

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Dec. 14 2005 7:26 PM

The "Out to Lunch" Defense

Karl Rove's story doesn't make sense.

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Rove's conversation with Cooper hadn't been a negligible interaction in his own mind. It was important enough that he wrote an e-mail message about it. "Matt Cooper called to give me a heads-up that he's got a welfare reform story coming," Rove wrote Stephen J. Hadley, who has since risen to become Bush's national security adviser. "When he finished his brief heads-up he immediately launched into Niger. Isn't this damaging? Hasn't the president been hurt? I didn't take the bait, but I said if I were him I wouldn't get Time far out in front on this."

Mightn't Rove at least have checked to see if the country's top newsmagazine took his advice or not about treating Wilson seriously? (In fact, it didn't. Wilson's claims led to a cover story, but the piece did not say anything about Wilson's wife.) In subsequent days, Joe Wilson accused Rove of being the leaker, and President Bush had been asked specifically about Rove's role. Those, too, would have been natural occasions for Rove to recall that he had, in fact, discussed the subject with more than one reporter.

Two months later, in September 2003, Rove had even more reason to ponder whom he might have talked to about Wilson. That's when the Justice Department started investigating the leak of Plame's name. Rove was a key suspect in the press and in the Washington chatter. In the White House briefing room, the press pounded administration spokesman Scott McClellan about whether Rove was involved in the leak. McClellan repeatedly asserted that Rove was not involved. Wouldn't the very act of coming up with that denial make him think yet again about all the people he might have talked to on that very important topic?

In late January 2004, Fitzgerald subpoenaed White House records. At this point, Rove and anyone else who had forgotten Cooper's name was presented with a request for all communications with Cooper and 24 other journalists. I know that at least some White House aides were able to search these names, because mine was one of them (presumably because I co-wrote the online article in which Cooper mentioned the White House leak). White House staffers searched for e-mails containing my name, and I know of at least two who handed over what they had to Fitzgerald. 

And if seeing Cooper's name on the subpoena didn't jog Rove's memory, might not his upcoming grand jury appearance? After Rove's first testimony in February 2004, the story only grew. In May 2004, Fitzgerald subpoenaed Cooper, and he became a household name. Over the next months it became clear that Cooper was facing jail time for protecting his administration source. If nothing else, shouldn't that have caused Rove to ask, Hey, did I talk to that guy?

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But none of it did. According to Luskin, it was his own conversation with Viveca Novak over drinks at Cafe Deluxe that prompted him to scrub Rove's e-mails really hard to look for anything that mentioned Cooper. The other possibility, of course, is that once it started to look like Matt Cooper was going to talk to Fitzgerald, as he first did in August 2004 about his conversation with Scooter Libby, Rove and Luskin needed an explanation of why they hadn't come forward earlier.